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The Counseling Connoisseur: Feminist psychology and the Amazonian mystique

By Cheryl Fisher July 13, 2017

She wanted a hero…so that’s what she became! –Anonymous

 

Clad in her patriotic unitard and silver arm bands, her dark mane cascading as she twirls her golden lasso of truth, Wonder Woman has become an icon of beauty, physical strength and moral character. Her conception in 1941 has taken her from her Amazonian haven of Paradise Island into the land of patriarchy as she is committed to help humans end violence and suffering in the United States. From her 1940s pinup persona to her 1970s Lynda Carter television series and this summer’s blockbuster movie, Wonder Woman continues to wrestle with the underpinnings of injustice in a society plagued with inequity. In creating Wonder Woman, psychologist William Moulton Marston hoped to “set up a standard among children and young people of strong free courageous women and to combat the idea women are inferior to men, and to inspire girls to self-confidence and achievements in athletics, occupations and professions monopolized by men.”

Harvard professor Jill Lepore suggests in her book The Secret History of Wonder Woman that Wonder Woman acted as a bridge for feminism, highlighting the first cover of Ms. magazine in 1972 with the headline ‘‘Wonder Woman for president.’’ Yet, not everyone was convinced of this superheroine’s positive influence on young and impressionable minds.  In his 1954 book The Seduction of the Innocent, psychiatrist Fredric Wertham described Wonder Woman as “…always a horror type. She is physically very powerful, tortures men and has her own female following, is the cruel, ‘phallic’ woman. While she is a frightening figure for boys, she is an undesirable ideal for girls, being the exact opposite of what girls are supposed to be.”

While Wertham lost his argument declaring comics a contributing factor to delinquency, it wasn’t until 2010 that evidence of the manipulation of data supporting his theory was fully revealed.  Nevertheless, Wonder Woman remains a constant iconic figure in the history of feminism.

Feminist psychology: History

In an attempt to counter Freud’s male-centered theory of identity formation, Karen Horney and other female psychologists developed theories that did not exclude the female experience. It was believed that rather than experiencing penis envy, what women desired was the status and opportunity afforded to men. Rejecting Freud’s theory in 1926, Horney introduced the concept of womb envy, or the desire around women’s ability to create and connect to their children.

The first wave of feminism occurred between 1900 and 1920 and included the suffrage movement, which ultimately won women the right to vote. Simultaneously, the field of psychology was emerging with theories of learning and intelligence. Women who were instrumental to the early conceptualization of psychology included Mary Whiton Calkins, the first female president of the American Psychological Association (APA) and Margaret Floy Washburn, who was the first woman to earn a doctorate in psychology and was the second woman, after Calkins, to serve as APA president.  Women were generally excluded from academia and (ironically) Elizabeth “Sadie” Holloway, the wife of William Moulton Marston (the creator of Wonder Woman) earned a PhD in psychology but was forbidden to attend college with men.

Marston, a psychologist and inventor of the polygraph, produced a paper in 1928 that declared that human emotions came from four factors: dominance, compliance, submission and inducement. According to Marston, inducement was the most powerful of forces, encouraging one to submit – and producing pleasantness in the induced. This was a trait that Marston identified in women, on which he based his 1937 proclamation that women would establish a matriarchy in 100 years because they have the biological advantage with “twice the love-generating organs” as men.  It was from this theoretical framework that Marston introduced his Wonder Woman in 1941.

Biology or social learning and gender prescription

Early psychology and first wave feminism emphasized the biological differences between the binary assignments of male and female-ness. Philosopher, psychologist and Harvard University professor William James denounced women as leaders because of their “tender-minded nature.”  However, second wave feminists of the 1960 to 1980s repealed the androcentric approaches to gender identity and research began to identify greater similarities between men and women.

Many theorists agree that most noted gender differences result from social learning and rewards or punishments for desired socially prescribed behavior. In essence, the theory posits that boys and girls are rewarded for different behaviors and therefore, learn what behaviors are appropriate for their gender. Social structural theory builds on social learning theory by addressing the secondary skills learned as a result of the learned primary behaviors. For example, if a girl is rewarded for domestic skills, a secondary learned behavior may be communal skills. This may result in the stereotyping of domestic work and promote the continued disenfranchising of women.

Wonder Woman attempted to dispel gender differences and employed an internal locus of control. She attributed her successes to commitment and training and valued mental and moral strength, in addition to physical conditioning.

Cultural identity

In addition to gender identity, cultural and ethnic identity contribute to one’s overall sense of self.  Cultural identity involves actively learning about one’s culture (beliefs, values and customs) and developing a clear understanding of the meaning of culture in one’s life. This includes the development of positive feelings toward one’s cultural group membership. Cultural identity in younger children is viewed in terms of physical characteristics. As they mature, culture takes on more social and membership implications.  Research appears to suggest an increase in cultural identity formation during middle adolescence. Furthermore, researchers Timothy Smith and Lynda Silva found evidence to suggest that cultural identity is a predictor of wellbeing among minority adolescents. Wonder Woman identifies as a member of the Amazons living in Paradise Island. While she is fluent in most languages, she is unfamiliar with the rules that accompany an androcentric world. She is abruptly thrown into a society that does not value women as equal [to men] and forces women to bind themselves [in clothes] “restricting their ability to be free to battle.” She wears her arm bands as a reminder that she will never be bound by anyone again. She must learn to acculturate in a way that honors her past and helps her function in the present. She must find membership and belonging in this new land, [which are] tasks that resonate with individuals migrating from other countries.

Conclusion

Wonder Woman has been described as complicated and dichotomous. According to researcher and social work educator Paige Averett, Wonder Woman “is feminine, sexual, submissive and dependent. She is also strong, capable, independent, fierce and ultimately a warrior. Unlike so many other female role models, she does not promote a one-dimensional view of the lived experience of being a woman. Wonder Woman is not just a sexy, attractive woman or just a strong kick-ass heroine or just a nurturing daughter and girlfriend or just a hardworking, justice-loving and world-changing working woman. She is all these things. Wonder Woman does not have to choose.”

Maybe this is the mystique of the Amazon princess that has remained strong for more than 75 years. While she is clearly not free from bias as a light-skinned, blue-eyed, dark haired, slender, more-than-able-bodied demigod, the idea of Wonder Woman poses the vision to engender life without prescription, to capitalize on individual strengths and to promote endless possibilities … for all persons.

 

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Cheryl Fisher

Cheryl Fisher is a licensed clinical professional counselor in private practice in Annapolis, Maryland. She is affiliate faculty for Loyola and Fordham Universities. Her research interests include examining sexuality and spirituality in young women with advanced breast cancer; Nature-informed therapy: and Geek Therapy.  She will be presenting Geek Therapy 101 at the Association for Creativity in Counseling conference in September.   She may be contacted at cyfisherphd@gmail.com.

 

 

 

 

 

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Related reading: See Counseling Today’s July cover story on the intersection of pop culture and counseling: wp.me/p2BxKN-4Lb

 

Letters to the editor: CT@counseling.org

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

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